Author(s): Michael J. Karter, Jr. Published on September 1, 2011
REPORT SUMMARY

A firefighter escapes through a second-story window while battling a house fire in Clear Spring, Maryland. The blaze destroyed four row houses. (Photograph: AP/Wide World)

Fire Loss in the United States During 2010
Public fire departments responded to 1,331,500 fires last year, a decrease of 1.3 percent from the year before

NFPA Journal®, September/October 2011 

By Michael J. Karter, Jr. 

Download the "Fire Loss in the United States During 2010" report (PDF, 759 KB)

In 2010, public fire departments responded to 1,331,500 fires in the United States, according to estimates based on data NFPA received from fire departments responding to its 2010 National Fire Experience Survey. This represents a slight decrease of 1.3 percent from the previous year and is the lowest since NFPA started using its current survey methodology in 1977 – 78.

 


Firefighters respond to a blaze at a church in Smith County, Texas.

SIDEBAR

Description of NFPA Survey
NFPA annually surveys a sample of U.S. fire departments to make national projections of the fire problem. In 2010, a total of 2,650 fire departments responded to the survey.
 



FIRES BY THE NUMBERS 
  • 1,331,500 fires were responded to by public fire departments, a decrease of 1.3 percent from the year before. 
  • 482,000 fires occurred in structures, an increase of 0.3 percent from 2009.
  • 384,000 fires, or 80 percent of all structure fires, occurred in residential properties.
  • 215,500 fires occurred in vehicles, a decrease of 1.6 percent from the year before.
  • 634,000 fires occurred in outside properties, a decrease of 2.3 percent from 2009.


CIVILIAN FIRE DEATHS

  • 3,120 civilian fire deaths occurred in 2010, an increase of 3.7 percent from 2009.
  • About 85 percent of all fire deaths occurred in the home.
  • 2,640 civilian fire deaths occurred in the home, an increase of 2.9 percent from 2009.
  • 285 civilians died in highway vehicle fires.
  • 90 civilians died in nonresidential structure fires.


CIVILIAN FIRE INJURIES
 

  • 17,720 civilian fire injuries occurred in 2010, an increase of 3.9 percent from the year before.
  • 13,800 of all civilian injuries occurred in residential properties, while 1,620 occurred in non-residential structure fires.


PROPERTY DAMAGE

  • An estimated $11.6 billion in property damage occurred as a result of fire in 2010, a decrease of 7.5 percent from 2009.
  • $9.7 billion of property damage occurred in structure fires.
  • $7.1 billion of property loss occurred in residential properties.


INTENTIONALLY SET FIRES

  • An estimated 27,500 intentionally set structure fires occurred in 2010, an increase of 3.8 percent from 2009.
  • Intentionally set fires in structures resulted in 200 civilian deaths, an increase of 17.7 percent from the year before.
  • Intentionally set structure fires also resulted in $585,000,000 in property loss, a decrease of 14.5 percent from 2009.
  • 14,000 intentionally set vehicle fires occurred, a decrease of 6.7 percent from the year before, and caused $89,000,000 in property damage, a decrease of 17.6 percent.

An estimated 482,000 structure fires were reported to fire departments in 2010, an increase of 0.3 percent, or virtually no change from the year before. For the period from 1977 to 2010, inclusive, the number of structure fires peaked in 1977 when 1,098,000 structure fires occurred. The number of structure fires then decreased steadily, particularly in the 1980s, to 688,000 by the end of 1989, for an overall decrease of 37.3 percent from 1977. Since 1989, structure fires again decreased steadily for an overall decrease of 24.7 percent to 517,500 by the end of 1998. They stayed in the 505,000 to 530,500 range from 1999 to 2008, before dropping to 480,500 in 2009, and increasing in 2010.

Of the 2010 structure fires, 384,000 were residential fires, accounting for 79.7 percent of all structure fires, an increase of 1.9 percent from the year before. Of these residential structure fires, 279,000 occurred in one- and two-family homes, accounting for 57.9 percent of structure fires. Another 90,500 occurred in apartments, accounting for 18.8 percent of all structure fires.

For nonresidential structure fires, some property types showed notable changes. In public assembly occupancies, such fires decreased 17.2 percent to 12,000. In stores and offices, they increased 9.1 percent to 18,000. And in special structure properties, they dropped 11.1 percent to 20,000.

There were also an estimated 184,500 highway vehicle fires in 2010, for a decrease of 3.2 percent, and 31,000 other vehicle fires, for an increase of 8.8 percent.

For the 1977 – 2009 period, the number of outside fires were at their highest in 1977, when 1,658,500 occurred. They then decreased steadily during the next six years to 1,011,000 in 1983, a considerable decrease of 39 percent from 1977. The number of outside fires changed little for the rest of the 1980s except in 1988, when 1,214,000 occurred. In 1993, the number dropped to 910,500, and stayed near 1 million for the next three years. From 1997 to 2002, the number of outside fires stayed in the 839,000 to 861,500 range, except in 1999, then rose in 2005 and 2006, before declining to 634,000 at the end of 2010.

Of the 2010 outside fires, an estimated 304,000 were brush, grass, and wildland fires, a very slight decrease of 0.7 percent from the year before. There were also an estimated 173,000 rubbish fires, an increase of 1.2 percent, or virtually no change from the year before.

Civilian Fire Deaths
The 1,331,500 fires reported by U.S. fire departments in 2010 resulted in an estimated 3,120 civilian deaths, based on data reported to NFPA. This is an increase of 3.7 percent from the year before. The nature of this increase is better understood when results are examined by property type.

An estimated 2,665 civilians died in residential fires in 2010, an increase of 2.9 percent. Of these deaths, 440 occurred in apartment fires and another 2,200 occurred in one- and two- family homes, an increase of 4.8 percent. In all, fires in the home, which include one- and two-family homes, manufactured homes, and apartments, resulted in 2,640 civilian deaths, or 2.9 percent more than the year before.

Looking at trends in civilian deaths since 1977 – 78, several observations are worth noting. Home fire deaths peaked in 1978 when 6,015 fire deaths occurred. They then decreased steadily from 1979 to 1982 except in 1981, for a substantial 20 percent drop to 4,820 by the end of 1982. From 1982 to 1988, the number of home fire deaths stayed in the 4,650 to 4,950 range, except for 1984, when 4,075 people died. From 1989 to 1996, home fire deaths continued to decline, staying in the 3,420 to 4,340 range. From 1997 onward, home fire deaths generally continued to decline, staying in the 2,550 to 3,200 range since 2001.

From 1977 to 2010, the number of home fire deaths decreased 55 percent from 5,865 in 1977 to 2,640 in 2010. The number of home fires also declined steadily during the same period for an overall decrease of 49 percent. When we look at the death rate per 1,000 home fires, however, we see no steady decline. Rather, the rate fluctuates considerably. In fact, the death rate per 1,000 home fires was 8.1 in 1977 and 7.1 in 2010 for a decrease of 12 percent. These results suggest that, even though the number of home fires and home fire deaths declined during the period, the death rate did not, and that, given there is a home fire, the fire death rate risk did not change much for the period.

With home fire deaths still accounting for 2,640 fire deaths, or 85 percent of all civilian deaths, fire safety initiatives targeted at the home remain the key to any reductions in the overall fire death toll. There are five major strategies. First, we need more widespread public fire safety education on preventing fires and avoiding serious injury or death if a fire occurs. Information on the common causes of fatal home fires should continue to be used in the design of fire safety education messages. Second, more people must use and maintain smoke detectors and develop and practice escape plans. Third, we must aggressively pursue wider use of residential sprinklers. Fourth, additional ways must be sought to make home products more fire safe. The regulations requiring more child-resistant lighters are a good example, as are requirements for fire-safe cigarettes. The wider use of upholstered furniture and mattresses that are more resistant to cigarette ignitions is an example of change that has already accomplished much and will continue to do more. And fifth, we must address the special fire safety needs of high-risk groups such as the young, older adults, and the poor.

Ninety civilians also died in nonresidential structure fires in 2010, a decrease of 14.3 percent, and of the 2,755 civilians that died in structure fires last year, 200, or 7.3 percent, died in fires that were intentionally set. An estimated 285 civilians also died in highway vehicle fires in 2010, an increase of 9.6 percent.

Civilian Fire Injuries
In addition to the 3,120 civilian fire deaths that occurred in 2010, an estimated 17,720 civilians were injured in fires last year. This represents an increase of 3.9 percent from the year before and is the highest the number has been since 2005, when 17,925 injuries occurred.

Estimates of civilian fire injuries are on the low side because many civilian injuries are not reported to the fire service. Many injuries occur at small fires to which fire departments do not respond, and fire departments may be unaware of victims they did not transport to medical facilities.

NFPA estimates 13,800 civilians were injured in fires in residential properties in 2010, an increase of 5.8 percent from 2009. Of these, 9,400 injuries occurred in one- and two-family homes, and 3,950 occurred in apartments. There were also 1,620 civilians injured in nonresidential structures in 2010.

From 1977 to 2010, the number of civilian injuries ranged from a high of 31,275 in 1983 to a low of 16,400 in 2006, for an overall decrease of 48 percent. There was no consistent pattern up or down until 1995, when injuries fell roughly 5,000 from the year before to 25,775. From 1996, injuries declined 28 percent to 18,425 by the end of 2002. Since 2002, civilian injuries have ranged from 16,400 to 18,425.

Property Loss
NFPA estimates that the 1,331,500 fires to which the fire service responded last year caused nearly $11.6 billion in property damage, a highly significant decrease of 7.5 percent from 2009. Fires in structures resulted in $9.7 billion in property damage, a significant decrease of 10.4 percent from 2009. The average loss per structure fire in 2010 was $20,158, another significant decrease of 10.6 percent.

Excluding the events of 9/11, the average loss per structure fire increased 436 percent from $3,757 in 1977 to $20,158 in 2010. When property loss is adjusted for inflation, the increase in the average structure fire loss between 1977 and 2010 is 48 percent.

Of the property loss in structures last year, nearly $7.1 billion occurred in residential properties, a decrease of 9.2 percent from 2009. An estimated $5.9 billion in damage occurred in one- and two-family homes, a decrease of 7.8 percent from the previous year, and an estimated $1 billion in damage occurred in apartments.

Other property damage figures worth noting for 2010 include $421 million in public assembly properties, a decrease of 44.4 percent from the previous year; $515 million in industrial properties, a decrease of 10 percent; and $389 million in fires outside a structure with value involved, a increase of 27.6 percent.

Keep in mind that property loss totals can change dramatically from year to year due to the impact of occasional large loss fires. For example, the 2010 decrease in public assembly property fires reflects a 2009 casino fire that resulted in $340 million in property loss, while the increase in fires outside structures with value involved reflects the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Wildfire in Colorado, which resulted in an estimated property loss of $217 million. NFPA analyzes large-loss fires annually in the November/December issue of NFPA Journal.

Intentionally Set Fires
NFPA estimates there were 27,500 intentionally set structure fires in 2010, an increase of 3.8 percent from the year before. These fires resulted in an estimated 200 civilian deaths, an increase of 17.7 percent, and $585 million in property loss, a decrease of 14.5 percent from the previous year.

There were also an estimated 14,000 intentionally set vehicle fires, a decrease of 6.7 percent from the year before. These vehicle fires resulted in $89 million in property loss, a decrease of 17.6 percent from 2009.

Overview of 2010 U.S. Fire Experience
Every 24 seconds, a fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the United States. A fire occurs in a structure at the rate of one every 65 seconds, and a residential fire occurs every 82 seconds. Fires occur in vehicles at the rate of one every 146 seconds, and there’s a fire in an outside property every 50 seconds. Nationwide, there was a civilian fire death every 169 minutes last year and a civilian fire injury every 30 minutes.

For the complete report on fire loss in the United Sates in 2010, including a description of the survey methodology, visit www.nfpa.org/fireloss.

Acknowledgments
NFPA thanks the many fire departments that responded to the 2010 National Fire Experience Survey for their continuing efforts to provide us, in such a timely manner, with the data so necessary to make national projections. We also wish to thank the many members of NFPA staff who worked on the 2010 survey, including Frank Deely, John Baldi, and John Conlon for editing the survey forms and making follow-up calls to fire departments, and Norma Candeloro for processing survey forms and keying in this report.



SIDEBAR
Description of NFPA Survey

NFPA annually surveys a sample of U.S. fire departments to make national projections of the fire problem. In 2010, a total of 2,650 fire departments responded to the survey.

The sample is stratified by the size of the communities the fire departments protect. All U.S. fire departments that protect communities of 50,000 or more are included in the sample because they constitute a small number of departments protecting a large share of the total population. For departments protecting fewer than 50,000 people, a sample was selected, stratified by the size of community protected.

The national projections are made by weighting sample results according to the proportion of total U.S. population accounted for by communities of each size. For each estimate, we also calculated a sampling or standard error. This is a measure of the error caused by the fact that the estimates are based on a sampling of fire losses rather than a complete census of the fire problem. Due to the fact that the survey is based on a random sample, we can be very confident that the actual value for overall fire statistics falls 1.5 percent for the number of fires, 10 percent for the number of civilian deaths, 5.1 percent for the number of civilian injuries, and 2.7 percent for property loss.

The results presented here are based solely on fires attended by public fire departments. No adjustments were made for unreported fires and losses. Nor were adjustments made for fires attended solely by private fire brigades or for fires extinguished by fixed suppression systems with no fire department response.

NFPA (National Fire Protection Association)
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